Have you ever felt that a book was written just for you? Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is my Platonic ideal: a novel by an Elder Millennial, set in an alternate San Francisco Bay Area populated by talented, curious people, weird-but-plausible technologies, and endless shelves of books. By the time I discovered the in-story trilogy of fantasy novels and the credible centuries-old secret society, I committed to becoming a Sloan completist.
Our initially hapless first-person hero Clay Jannon is looking for a job, any job. His start-up employer NewBagel went under; turns out not many people want bagels baked by an algorithm. Meanwhile, his best friend is already living his passion and making mega tech bucks. Clay grabs the first opportunity on offer—the night shift at a tall, narrow, dusty bookstore that doesn’t seem to sell anything. Most volumes are lend-only, to a handful of old eccentrics who are “members.” (Of which club, Clay has no idea.) His cheerful boss, the wizard-like Mr. Penumbra, charges him with keeping the detailed visitor logbook, recording each person’s appearance, conversation, and disposition, as well as any financial transaction. Penumbra makes it clear that Clay may only touch books when asked, and he must never, under any circumstance, open or read them.
When screens are the dominant medium of “content consumption,” books are part of the revolutionary counterculture. Five hundred years after the printing press, the codex remains the highest of high technologies—portable, durable, modifiable, shareable—and unsurpassed in the ability to transmit thought across time and space. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a book that loves books and deserves to be held. I recommend keeping it on your bedside table. You’ll see why.